With their glass walls, exposed beams, and promise of indoor-outdoor living, the California houses that Joseph Eichler built in the 1950s and ’60s have endured the test of time—give or take some modernization. Their landscapes, though, not so much.
"Because these houses were economical, they didn’t come landscaped," says Paul Adamson, an Eichler historian. "There was little more than concrete paving and planting areas. Lawns and plants were installed by the homeowners." That’s what Usha and Mike Kreaden discovered when they moved from Montreal to Sunnyvale, California, in 1991 and, a few years later, bought a 1958 Eichler blessed with an expansive front yard. "We thought, this is the way we want to live in California," Usha explains. "The house was so open and inviting."
For the Kreadens, though, the indoor-outdoor part of the equation would have to wait. With two young daughters, Annapurna and Siddartha, and visiting parents, they needed to update and expand the house first. Guy Ayers, a Los Altos Hills architect, added an additional 634 square feet to the 2,242-square-foot house. The idea, Ayers says, was "to respect the fabric of the salvaged portions of the house but also add more opportunities for outdoor ‘rooms.’" Once the renovation was complete, the couple turned their attention to the property, which measured almost a third of an acre.
Enter Bernard Trainor, a Monterey-based landscape designer lauded for his modernist approach. His work is recognized for a close attention to context, architectural style, and history. He, too, wanted to pay homage to the architecture and what came before, but in the case of the garden, that was very little. Like any good student of landscape design, he looked to related sources, like the houses that Richard Neutra built across Southern California. Trainor admires Neutra for his spatial design and use of hardscape, and channeled those moves into the Kreadens’ landscape. "Eichlers aren’t very big—that’s why so much emphasis was on the outside," Trainor says. "The house had to look like it extended out, so there was a strong focus on interesting paving."
In addition to creating the illusion of more space, paving helps steer the eye through the Kreadens’ irregularly shaped lot. Trainor divided the yard into four "garden rooms": an entry courtyard with a fire pit for entertaining, a traditional backyard with a lawn and a dining area, a meditative space just off the master bedroom, and a side garden near the guesthouse. Poured-in-place concrete interspersed with gravel and stone—the backbone of his plan—connects the zones. Trainor staggered the concrete pieces in a way that "creates more of a flow and provides opportunities to insert plantings," he says. "Having unusual paving shapes creates rhythm in the garden."
The new gate to the property—made from recycled acrylic Chroma panels by 3form, in a splashy neon yellow—sets the tone for the landscape’s centerpiece. Trainor converted the front yard into an outdoor living room, where a deep-wicker sofa and chairs, both by Mamagreen, surround a custom concrete gas fire pit. Beds of drought-tolerant red kangaroo paws enclose the seating area without eliminating views.
Stepping stones lead to the side yard, which includes a Modern-Shed guesthouse, and the backyard, where the family often dines alfresco. In the opposite corner, a contractor, Mike Hertzer, transformed a boulder into a fountain, whose soothing sound drifts into the master bedroom suite nearby.
The arrangement of plants was "as much about form as about color," Trainor says. He supplemented what was already there with sculptural New Zealand flax, colorful succulents like Aeonium ‘Mint Saucer’ and blue chalk sticks, and grasses like June grass and mondo grass at the lowest level. "The varieties of foliage size and shapes play against the simple building forms," Trainor says. Unlike with traditional homes, where plantings tend to hide the foundation, "in a modern house you want it to appear as if the floor runs out into the landscape," he says.
What was once the most neglected part of the property has become the place where the couple and their daughters, now 18 and 15, spend the most time. Steps from the great room, the front yard "has truly become an extension of the house," Usha says—an updated notion of indoor-outdoor living that goes a step beyond Eichler’s vision.
Now based in the San Francsico Bay Area, Joanne Furio is a veteran print journalist who segued into design over a decade ago. In addition to writing for Dwell, she contributes to San Francisco and the Believer.